Reviewed by Katherine Damisch
In its original 1982 form, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic Joseph and the Amazing, Technicolor Dreamcoat brings color, energy, and creativity to that timeless story from Genesis. Lloyd Webber wrote the show in multitudes of musical styles ranging from country to jazz to pop to reggae. One might think that Drury Lane updating it for modern tastes would serve the piece well. After all, the original brought the story from ancient times into the 1980s; why shouldn’t we carry it from the 80s until now? Modernization can serve a story by providing context that today’s audiences can more readily understand.
Unfortunately, director Alan Souza drags it all the way from the present day and into the positively absurd. Instead of the show using dreams as an intermittent theme to tell Joseph’s story, it takes place in Las Vegas at the Luxor hotel, inside a visitor’s literal dreams. This might sound like a daring and creative concept, but it ultimately cheapens the tale. Instead of struggling through trials that lead to his full potential, our “Joseph” stumbles from scene to scene with no real connection to anybody. After all, these ghosts of his imagination aren’t really his brothers with whom he has grown up his whole life, or an all-powerful Pharaoh who could have him killed with a flick of his hand. Joseph’s initial confusion at the existence of these characters only underscores this phenomenon. Why should he, or we, feel anything when his brothers betray him, or when they are finally reunited? Why should we fear for Joseph when he’s thrown in jail? All he has to do is wake up. Indeed, “Close Every Door” should serve to reveal that Joseph still has hope, despite the fact that his family and seemingly the whole world, have turned their back on him. This production reduces such a profound lament and pivotal moment to a stress nightmare where Joseph can’t exit his locked hotel room.
Not only does the “extended dream sequence” premise degrade the story, the production design and direction do no help to clarify, add meaning, or even stop the production from getting out of its own way. Joseph spends almost all of Act I performing in his boxers. The brothers individually look like pirates, gangsters, pimps, or stereotypical Arabs. It’s actually unclear if Jacob is supposed to be their real father or a mob boss who only treats them like “sons”. As for the four female ensemble members, it’s a shame that Drury Lane could not afford them more fabric, as they were barely covered each time they stepped onstage. They spent their precious few minutes of stage time gyrating and pawing at Joseph for reasons that remain a mystery.
In their marketing of this show, Drury Lane has been purposefully withholding photographs from this production so as to not ruin its surprises, but really, that’s almost like taking the giant content warning label off of Avenue Q posters. In fact, it may be even more irresponsible than that, as Joseph has long held as a mainstay of family-friendly musical theatre. One can only imagine that there will be some unhappy parents who will inevitably take their families to this show. Moreover, given that Joseph tells a tale from the Bible, claims of sacrilege may not be too far off either, as no part of this production treats the story with any kind of respect.
Christina Bianco plays our Narrator. Broadway fans may recognize her from popular YouTube videos where she imitates multiple female pop and musical theatre stars in the span of one song. Instead of her providing the link between story and audience, she detracts from it entirely because she spends 75% of the show impersonating various legendary Vegas performers. The gimmick, which may be Souza’s nod to traditional productions where an Elvis impersonator plays the Pharaoh, is wholly distracting, causing audiences to gawk at her stylings instead of hearing the crucial pieces of plot that her lyrics are conveying. This isn’t to say that her impressions aren’t good; they’re spot-on. However, audiences came to see Joseph, not The Christina Bianco Show. This came to a head when, instead of performing the “Joseph Remix” at the end to re-cap the show after curtain call, the cast was forced to stand there while Bianco sang more Joseph songs while adding new impressions to her schtick. This is a disgrace and an insult to the depth of talent displayed in those performers. A cast is supposed to be a team of equals, not props to stand in front of, as if she hadn’t had enough of the spotlight already.
Luckily, much of this insanity dies down a bit in Act II, almost as if Souza and team finally tired of their own stunts. Joseph puts on some clothes. Bianco’s impersonations divert the show slightly less, or maybe we’re just used to them by then. The staging and storytelling become less flashy and more familiar. “Those Caanan Days”, which can easily become a weak point in more traditional productions, became one of the better numbers of the show. Finally, there’s a song where the ensemble just gets onstage and sings (and quite magnificently at that.) The eleventh-hour number “Benjamin Calypso” glimmers with what the entire production should have been: classic Lloyd Webber with a wink at the present day (in this case, taking the form of Beyonce dance moves). Such a shame that audiences only get a wink of what could have been in this sea of directorial self-indulgence.
Joseph and the amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat play Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m., Thursdays at 1:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 5 and 8:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 6 p.m.
Tickets range from $47-$62 and are available at the theater box office, by calling 630-530-0111, calling Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000 or online at www.DrurylaneTheatre.com
Special rates for children and seniors- dinner packages are available
Free Parking is available and valet parking as well.
To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”.